The Setback Club

The young woman next to Aiden spoke with polished authority, sipping her drink between words. “MDMA, coke, even alcohol— neurotoxins, it’s really interesting, you and Aron should see the stuff we’re premiering from the lab. Every party kid’s wildest dreams.”

Aiden was all ears until she leaned forward and put a seeking hand on his thigh.

“I’m gonna head out.” Aiden said, standing quickly and enunciating each word loudly so his brother could hear him over the bubbling music. The square collection of plush couches overlooked the energetic dancefloor and had grown overcrowded, and now his status as Aron’s brother made him vulnerable to wandering female hands. They were all quite intelligent in a hard sciences sort of way, but so far none of Aron’s male classmates had been so forward. It was time to try his luck elsewhere. Aiden relinquished his seat to a buxom astrophysicist who happily took the opportunity to slide a seat closer to Aron.

Aron looked up from his own conversation, a question in his raised brows. Aiden twitched a smile back, making it clear he was alright. “Have fun – I’m gonna go.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the universal signal for bailing on loud social scenes. He waved, Aron pointed at his phone, and Aiden nodded in agreement, he would text.

Communication successful, Aiden pressed himself through the sweat-slick crowd on the way to the door, making his half stumble into the humid but still fresher air outside, feel like a dive into cool water. He filled his lungs with the neon-lit night and waved away someone trying to get rid of a stack of flyers to various probably equally sweaty clubs.

Aiden glanced at his phone, at well past twelve he’d have to hurry to make last call anywhere else. Instead of rushing into the next promising bar, or hurrying towards the club two streets over where Aiden knew the nights less-than-handsome and now desperate were bound to be easy pickings, he dug his hands into his jacket pockets and strolled.

Last call was last call, but that meant everyone would be out on the streets soon, wandering roadside and looking for trouble.

It wasn’t until he’d passed a few blocks searching for something to hook his interest that he realized the neon was behind him. The streets here were lit with buzzing yellow, creating pockets of sickly light that illuminated the gum-pocked sidewalks and litter filled curb drains. Aiden almost turned back around, but stained paper—one of those flyers—caught his eye when it stuck to his shoe. It wasn’t for a dance club or bar, but a lounge. The Setback Club. Aiden blinked down at the title and then up.

Just down the street ahead of Aiden old marquee letters repeated the name in old red, the color of sun streaming through closed eyelids. Aiden glanced behind him, and finding nothing to pull him back from this beckoning whim, started walking further into the dark humming neighborhood.

A Wordle Prompt from Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie.  I do the every other Friday first line posts there, but the Wordle Prompts always get me writing. 

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A Leadership Role

It was good his daughter was not here, Adam thought as he watched the dark city rumble past outside his carriage window. Aurora was his near only family now and certainly his dearest relation; his contacts assured him she was doing well on the college trip. She and her friends would touch down at the field side outside the rustic but sleepy Three Points in a day. With her safety out of the city and away from his enemies, Adam could breathe easier.

At least metaphorically, the air outside the carriage was thick with late fog, cold, clean and possibly natural. Still there was no cause to take chances, Adam checked the mask over his nose and mouth before stepping down to the street. The air couldn’t be trusted this close to the factory.

Aetherstop was a small struggling district growing off the city’s industrial promenade. During the day its inhabitants emptied to the churning factories and at night crammed themselves into overcrowded apartments set between the district’s warehouses and decrepit shopfronts. Silhouetted against the greenish cast of night clouds, Adam could easily count which of the smokestacks belonged to him. He twitched a smile, most of them.

His carriage and its drivers worked to tuck themselves into a wide alley while Khelo checked no surprises waited for them inside the dark building. It was an ugly squat thing with nondescript walls and blank windows covered and sealed. No one guarded the outside, lest they hint at the important affairs within.

Soon, the door opened and Khelo emerged with a reedy man in a thick white coat. The man, who introduced himself as Doctor Havish with a bow, made several sweeping motions to invite Adam inside. Adam made a mental note to investigate the man’s credentials. The competent usually didn’t prostrate themselves so very much. In any case, it was inappropriate for a man in a leadership position. Adam could find other scientists.

Adam let Havish lead him down past the check in and several layers of guards, each bristled in turn as he and Khelo, unnerving in her black cowl and cloak, passed. A windowed door waited for them at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, hazy teal light hummed around its edges and flooded the glass. Adam paused at the top of the steps, “its safe?”

Doctor Havish nodded hurriedly and chattered about fail-safes and his own time in the lab.  The scientist was so insistent, Khelo leaned forward menacingly and Adam waived her away. “Continue then, and hurry. This is not my only stop tonight.” The doctor leaned away from Khelo and did as he was told, leading them down the steps and through the door.

The teal light came from the large glass orbs set like fishbowls in rows throughout the long rectangular lab. Each of the thick glass spheres were large enough that a man of Adam’s good height and solid weight could easily float within, and many did. Adam paused before the first in the nearest row, gazing at the dead-eyed woman gasping like a fish within. “They’re alive?”

Havish was at his side quickly, nodding, and explaining that they were. Conscious too, but subdued by the ether around them. The refined substance kept them quite healthy and whole despite the lack of air, food, or any similar things usually required for life. Adam nurtured the swell of hope in his chest, after so many years this sounded like a breakthrough. “Are they of sound mind? Still themselves? Can they be hurt? Killed?”

More tests were needed to answer those questions, Havish informed him, for the first time no longer eager to provide answers. There were concerns, ethical ones. Some of the subjects had been able to communicate, they wanted out. Adam took the news with a solid nod. “Schedule the tests.”

When Havish swallowed instead of agreeing, Adam turned a smile and sigh on the reedy doctor. “The tests will be scheduled, by you or your replacement if you no longer wish to take a leadership role. We can always find another place for you.” Adam turned slowly to regard the teal orbs and their inhabitants again. “Do you understand?”

Now Havish’s nod and burbled agreement was just as quick as before. Adam smiled and shook the man’s hand. “Good work, very pleased with the progress,” Adam said, already mentally sighing at the prospect of finding another project lead.

Coping Mechanisms

Roshan barely managed to shoulder through the door, his chin atop the dozen books he balanced against his chest.

“What are those?” Orion looked up from his sprawl on the chaise lounge, his lap covered with paper and script that made Roshan’s mind writhe. Roshan focused on getting the stack of volumes safety to the long tables set in the center of the study lounge.

“Books, Orion.” Roshan said, smiling at the glare he imagined his friend was boring into his shoulder blades. Roshan set a hand to lean on the table, somewhat winded from the multiple flights of stairs and his leather-bound burdens. He twisted his smile to a smirk at his friend.  “Damned things are all over campus.”

Orion shut the arcane script away, folding a delicately carved wooden cover over the loose sheaves of paper, for which Roshan was grateful. As much as they hurt to look at, mage script pulled the eye insistently. Mages like Orion didn’t have the problem once they learned it, but those who couldn’t decipher the jagged symbols found the script disconcerting at best.

The mage pushed back artfully messed hair from his eyes, after a long day of study the coif was drooping anyway, and Orion gave the stack of books a pointed look. “You were complaining yesterday you haven’t read anything you’ve pulled from the library in half a year. Drowning in unread treatises, your words.”

“Yes well, I found these and I thought they looked promising.” Roshan frowned. Orion was here for supplementary study, learning the shallow ins and outs of other worlds he’d be visiting as a practicing mage. Orion would never know the agony of the endless specialized cultural and social study Roshan attempted. What if one of these books held the secret to Roshan’s theory, or method, or–

“Drunk and sad, you despaired that these countless volumes you’d mistakenly collected were just another thing you’d never finish. Drowning.” Orion’s sympathy visibly warred with amusement. “Doesn’t your committee give you enough to read as is?”

Roshan pinched his mouth, annoyed that he’d complained to Orion in the first place. “Yes, but some productivity is better than none. And these could be useful.”

“Unless you don’t read them.” Orion said, enjoying the argument he was objectively winning. “Then they are not useful at all.”

“Why do I tell you anything?” Roshan frowned at the stack of books, mourning the small hit of accomplishment he’d gathered with the books.

“Because–” Orion swung his feet around and unfolded himself to standing, tucking the papers and wooden cover beneath his arm. “– I know better coping mechanisms than library books. The Harestreet rings are supposed to be good tonight, new fighters, better bets.”

“I should–” Roshan started and Orion finished.

“Come with me instead of not reading. The same amount of work will be done, you’ll just be happier.” Orion said smoothly, already walking towards the door.

Roshan wished he could refute his friends logic, but couldn’t at the moment. “Fine, but help me with these.”

Orion didn’t even complain as returned from the door to help Roshan split the book pile, too pleased with his victory. Roshan, now looking forward to the night ahead of them, let his friend have it.

Good for the Soul

Kamilah shouldered into the dim bar and looked around for Jay, a little out of breath from her swift walk from the bus stop. The sound system switched from r&b to sad country as she scanned the place. Jay was on a stool, waving his hands at the bartender in the midst of some story. “You bothering this poor young man while he’s trying to work?” Kamilah slid into the seat next to him.

Relief softened Jay’s features and he held up his beer bottle and two fingers, ordering for her. “Thought that Chungie’s closes at 10? Its past midnight.”

“My boss kept me, and I don’t say no to hours.” Kamilah smiled gratefully at the bartender, who despite a well-puffed beard, couldn’t be any older than her own son at nineteen. No wonder he’d been being nice to Jay. “Sorry though, thanks for waiting.” She leaned over and brushed her lips against his jaw and the graying stubble there.

“Of course girl.” Jay grinned back, a little drunk. The bartender opened a condensation slick beer and set on the scuffed bar in front of Kamilah. Jay put his elbows on the bar, head turned and still smiling. “You work too much. If you didn’t come in so tired I’d think you found someone else. Still no time for a boyfriend?”

Kamilah shook her head, “Jay, I got two jobs and I’m in the market for a third.”

“You just here for the free beer then?” He asked, causing her to sputter as she drank hers with a laugh.

“No, no I–” Kamilah started but the country song filled in the void, bittersweet lyrics filling her pause a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul. The singer went on to describe past lovers while Jay and Kamilah laughed again together this time. For a moment Kamilah didn’t think of her shift in seven hours, it was nice to just laugh next to man who called her girl even though she hadn’t been one in a good long while.

“So we gonna listen to the song and go? Your place?” Jay took his chance, throwing a twenty down from his pocket to pay for their drinks.

“I got kids. I don’t bring men home. Not til Ashlyn’s out at whatever fancy college she’s got her heart set on.” Kamilah made sure her voice held no wiggle room. It wasn’t Jay in particular, she liked Jay, trusted him even, but she’d heard too many horror stories to risk it just cause she was lonely. “Sorry Jay, its a rule of mine.”

“Oh come on, their teenagers right? They’re probably not even there it being Friday night at midnight. That age, I raised all sorts of hell when my parents were working.” Jay reasoned, resting a hand on the small of her back as they walked from the bar.

“My kids are good kids. And they have better sense than you.” Kamilah retorted, but she was thankful he pressed just a little. It was nice to have someone trying and she kissed him on the sidewalk so he knew she appreciated the chase, even if it wasn’t leading anywhere. “Goodnight Jay.”

Music challenge time. This week Judd and I wrote to Jenny Lewis’ Heads Gonna Roll. See Judd’s piece here. 

Beneath Sacred Stone

This is Part III, Read Part I (Bastards… Barbarians) and Part II (Oaths and Old Magics) first!

The ether lantern was more than bright enough to fill the burial warren’s narrow entry chamber. It’s light spread over the smoothly carved floors and low ceiling, faltering only at the three open doorways that seeped cold from the deepest parts of the temple. Cen glided over the floor, urging the light forward with the lantern before her.

Oakby’s let the rifle hang at his side as he followed her towards the center doorway, mouth parted and eyes roaming around the chamber. He hesitated before the middle path. “How do you know to take this one?”

Cen shrugged a lazy shoulder, already on the steps leading down. The golden points of the tools in her belt glittered sharply in the cool ether light. “I don’t,” she answered and continued, hips rocking slowly back and forth as she drifted downward, taking each step slowly so the lantern’s light glided with her. Oakby followed in her wake, nostrils and mouth tight with displeasure.

“How do you know its safe?” He asked after the entry chamber vanished behind their small circle of lantern light. The burning ether’s pale glow only suggested the presence of walls, and it felt much more like the depths of a silent ocean, chill and dark in all directions. Cen’s gentle footfalls paused.

“I don’t,” Cen said, flicking the words back at him before continuing down with the same sure, hunting cat steps.

Oakby handled the silence for another set of breaths and then opened his mouth again. “But how—”

The door materialized from the darkness abruptly, a great stone thing barred with wood and carved with reliefs of battles as well as what looked to be—Oakby blushed and made a noise of disgust when he got close enough over her shoulder to see the lurid details. “These people, was it really all sex and death, en masse apparently?”

“And upheaval and conquest.” Cen drew her fingers up to the carving, skimming the scenes set in wide banners across the door. Her lips twitched over a bit of script set over her head, where most’s eyes would be. Cen hummed with interest and ignored Oakby’s affronted mutterings. The script was in Urahi, which Cen had never studied, but knew enough useful phrases from her work raiding their dead.

“For the unflinching,” Cen moved her lips around the words as she inspected the handle mechanism buried in a hollow at the center of the door. To even touch the smooth lock inside she had to insert her hand unseen into the mechanism fully past her wrist, and she did so slowly. As her fingers wrapped around the unseen metal handle, something clicked deep inside the carved portal. The mechanism cinched around her wrist so tightly she felt her pulse kick against it. Cen went as still as the stone around her.

Oakby swore and flinched back from the door as if it might bite him too. “Why would you— we could have gotten a worker, a local– ”

“Shhh,” Cen breathed, face inches from the carved surface. The vice was painfully tight around her wrist, the mechanism holding her fast with something sharp that she could feel the edges of. Cen imagined hidden blades caressing the skin where her pulse beat. But she still had the handle in her grip. Very slowly, Cen tightened her hold and pressed forward.

The door unlatched smoothly, releasing Cen’s hand and clicking open forward. She flexed her fingers and glanced to her sputtering captor.

“You do understand them, I’ll give you that – these vulgar barbarians who make a death traps.” Oakby snapped the ragged words, but for the first time there was something like regard in the words. His fingers curled tighter around the rifle. “Not that its a comfort.”

“Isn’t it? You have my word, not even the brave break oaths so deep under sacred stone.” Cen rolled her shoulders, easing away the tight panic at being caught so.

“I suppose– and there is something here. Look.” Oakby gingerly pressed the door open revealing a chamber much larger than what had come before. The walls, shadowed in the limited light from Cen’s lantern, were carved like a towering beehive, stone cells stretching to the ceiling in a gentle arch until they met above them. In each of the cells desiccated remains clothed in rotted leather and dull armor clutched weapons to their chests. As they stepped inside, their light reached farther revealing the bits of gold and silver glinting at hilt, crest, and and skeletal fingers. Oakby forgot his caution, eyes growing wide and bright as he hurried to the first of the cells and a solid, but gilded, spear there.

Cen let him go round the room’s edge, her attention elsewhere. The floor beneath her wrapped sandals sloped gradually towards a sunken, carved pit at the chamber’s center. Deep grooves led along the floor towards the indent, multiplying as they branched off their fellows, many rivers leading towards an ocean. Or a drain.

She followed the grooves’ path to the pit and looked down. Not deep, Cen might stand below and still peer over its edge at the rest of the burial chamber. At its low center, a sword of reddish metal lay flat and encased by an arcane mechanism. Bands of stone and gold in the likeness of angry serpents leashed the short sword to the floor at the center of the pit. Cen cocked her head and then slowly set the lantern on the ground, replacing it in her palm with one of her sharp golden tools from her belt.

“Oi, what are you doing? Stay away from my finds.” Oakby had the rifle half up as he jogged the distance between them. His alarm ebbed away when his eyes caught on the strangely captured weapon below. “What is that?”

“A sword for a warrior.” Cen struck smooth and quick as a snake. With her golden tool’s sharp point, she ripped Oakby’s shirt and skin open from hip to hip. Swift as she’d gutted him, Cen stepped back smoothly to keep the guts from splattering her hem and wasting blood. Oakby gasped and gaped like a fish, his hands twitching in front of his opened abdomen. He fell next to his bowels, still gurgling curses. From the vulgar words, he managed to snarl at her, “sacred stone — your word–”

“That I would not lay a finger on you. And I have not.” She fanned her clean fingers, still holding the blood-stained sigil tool. “Just this. The Urahi were specific on wording, any decent Captain who works in their valley should know that.”

Cen wasted no more words on him as he expired, more interested in his blood coursing through the grooves and into the pit. As the viscous red pooled around the bands of stone and gold, something clicked, like a weight being set. The sword’s prison folded back on itself, retreating back from the sword’s reddish metal and curling beneath it. The stone and gold reforming to create a small dais, complete with the serpent motif from before, on which the sword rested.

With careful, reverent steps Cen lowered herself into the pit and approached the sword. Cen allowed herself a purr of pleasure as her fingers curled comfortably around the sword’s grip.

Her mood was interrupted when above her the ceiling shivered, and Cen jerked her head up to watch motes of dust drift down in the light from the — sword. The lantern at the edge of the pit no longer glowed, for the sword had stolen the ether light and now shown bright enough to throw its own shadows against the burial cells.

Another tremor, and Cen quirked her lips, wondering how her men were managing Oakby’s leaderless company. There would be time for the rest of the temple’s ripe treasures later once Oakby’s men were successfully cowed and working for her, but for now, she wanted to see what the sword could do. Cen left the pit, chamber, and stairs with pleased rolling steps, a golden tool in one hand and a glowing sword in the other.

Oaths and Old Magics

This is Part II, check out Part I here first. 

Oakby’s camp was set so close to the dig-site that tents rubbed up against the crumbling columns and his men’s fires burned beneath the sacred arches. Millennia ago warriors came here to lay their most honored dead, and with them the weapons of their leaders and heroes, now different sorts of warriors diced and drank under the old stone.

They separated Cen from her company, putting the latter under guard in the corner of the clearing while Oakby himself escorted her towards the temple’s sunken entrance. There, laborers struggled to wedge crowbars into the sealed stone circles, grunting as they chipped the ancient symbols away. Cen flicked a lidded glance towards the other expedition captain. “You’ve broken it.”

“Can’t be broken if its wasn’t working in the first place. Damn primitives.” He scuffed at the stubborn door with an angry boot toe as his hired men hammered away.

Cen rolled her eyes and bent at the nearest circle, running fingers over the portion that had yet to be scuffed away by steel. “What have you tried before the crowbars?”

“Every ancient word for weapon, death, battle, glory, or blood you could think of. They were warriors. And its an armory as much as a tomb.” Oakby explained further when she sent him a pitying look. He tilted his chin up watching her through slitted eyes as she examined the door, but when Cen called for her tools he nodded and allowed one of her own company to bring them over. Cen took the folded leather in her small hands and gracefully spread it over the ground to reveal sharp golden tools. She removed one wicked looking instrument and with a quick slash, opened a small ruby slash over the back of her left hand.

Cen traced a short round sigil on the intact stone, using her let blood as vibrant ink on the end of the instrument.  When Oakby leaned over her shoulder to see it, he blushed. “How crass.”

“The Urahi wouldn’t think so, sex was as much a part of their lives as death. They were human after all.” Cen didn’t move from her crouch, as the stone shuddered in front of her and the small enspelled portion shifted away, folding in on itself in a complex mechanism. The rest of the door, broken and scuffed over by the crude attempts to pry it off, remained static. Only a small hole, just large enough for a single person to squeeze through settled open. Cen stood and stared down at the preserved darkness of the ancient stairway.

“Get moving then—my men will follow.” Oakby demanded, motioning for Cen to begin the descent into the ground.

“There is air below for few, perhaps two.” Cen didn’t move. The air from the underground temple did indeed smell earthen and stale. “Who among your company can you trust with me and the treasures below?”

Oakby’s expression twisted with frustration before he snatched a long rifle from a soldier and an ether-burning lantern from another. He shoved the lantern at Cen. “Your word that you’ll not act against me below—you’ve a reputation, but they say you respect oaths and old magics. And you seem to understand these barbarians.”

Cen calmly watched the vein in his temple twitch. She inhaled and flicked a low glance to the stone mouth before them. “I will not lay a finger on you, I swear it,” she answered just long enough for the air to grow tense again.

When he nodded, Cen gathered her tools in one hand and raised the lantern in the other before stepping down into the dark.

Part III to come soon!

Bastards… Barbarians

Her workers were having difficulty with this patch of jungle. This place grew from all sides, vines and crawlers that roped between the trees and had to be cut through. Cen pursed her lips tighter with each inefficient thwack of machete. They were not moving fast enough.

Cen’s small company of soldiers, local workers, and pack oxen were not the only expedition in search of the Urahi ruins and the barrows beneath them. Called archaeology by weedy university scholars, grave robbing by disapproving monks, and a crude hobby by her father’s wife, Cen was one of many in this profitable business.

Corners of dark, cracked stone began to peek through the roots they trudged over, the remnants of an ancient road. They were close. Cen pulled herself up over a cluster of hard vegetation with corded arms and thick muscled legs, to stand languidly atop the chimera of root, tree, and ancient stone and check her company’s pace. Only upon taking the moment to bask in the damp warmth, Cen realized the living sounds of the jungle had ceased. From ahead of them the scrape of metal against stone and the grunts of hard labor carried past the chop of her machetes.

They’d been outpaced. Cen raised her arm to command halt, but the clicks of rifle hammers around them did more to freeze her company in place. Cen kept her growl quiet, her nose flaring in fury. She’d skin the scouts later. For now, she raised her other arm to complete the gesture of surrender. Cen did not jump down though, forcing the enemy company riflemen to aim up. She smiled down at them as they poured from the trees.

“Do you have a grand speech for us Miss. Aurell?” Asked a polished voice from the trees. Ed Oakby stepped out from under a thick bough and moved to stand before her. He was unarmed, but his soldiers around him did not lower their guns.

Cen couldn’t help the curl in her lip at her family name. Most didn’t think she had right to it, and so its use in her presence was more often insult than not. Ed Oakby smiled warmly though, even twiddled the corner of his robust mustache as if they were meeting on a street corner and wasting words on the weather.

“I don’t play with words.” Cen said stared down at him and lowered her hands. Oakby had more soldiers than she by the looks of those assembled here. She flicked a low glance at the nearest rifle. “Or guns. I would be careful, it is dangerous to spill blood so close to the temple, unless you know what your doing.”

“I’ve heard that,” said Oakby. “And I’ve heard the stories of your barbarous temple delving. How many of your own did you bleed to open the Xaquin site?”

“Enough.” Cen enjoyed the way he leaned back from her slow, heavy smile. “But I’m sure you’ve gotten past the ground floor here without resorting to such, barbarous measures?” She used the word back at him. Cen wouldn’t have heard the scrape of crowbars so loudly if he had gotten in. Likely Oakby was trying to force his way down.

The Oakby’s eyes chest puffed as if she’d challenged him, but his eyes slid away from hers. “Matter of time.”

“Neither of us have that. Urahi is warriors’ burial. The rich do pay well to hang weapons they can’t use on their walls.” Cen shrugged, that concept was still strange to her but her business partners in the city assured her it was where the money—and prestige was. “How long before Clagg’s company arrives, or Hunjan’s?”

When he didn’t answer Cen knew she had the better ground, and she pressed her advantage. “My company is small, a fifth of yours. Paying a fifth of the take to a business partner is better than losing all of it to a rival.”

“You and I are not partners. Your money is bloody.” He sniffed, trying to crawl up the moral high ground.

“Our business is the same.” Cen reminded him.

It was a mistake, she realized, when his eyes narrowed like she’d insulted him.  Won through a soldier’s sword, taskmasters whip, or factory machine– true fortunes were never built without sweat, suffering, and a fair amount of spilt blood. Cen embraced that, others deluded themselves apparently. Oakby twitched a fingers and his men around him firmed their grips on the rifle. “Miss Aurell, I do not conduct business with bastards or barbarians. You’ve proven to be both.”

Her own men, rougher and meaner than Oakby’s force, tensed. At her side, Cen flexed her fingers, a soft signal for them to stand down.

“You are right on one count, time is not in large supply and you’re known for results. You will help me to get into the inner chambers and the armory,” Oakby said. The rifles trained on her did not ease. “Might even let you pick out something for yourself if your men don’t cause trouble. Something pretty.”

A long moment stretched over the jungle and the assembled companies. Their soldiers coiled for the first strike, the two leaders staring at each other. Cen broke the tension with a nod of slight acquiescence. “Lead on,” she purred.

To be continued on Friday. Part II can now be viewed here.